This job certainly introduces you to a lot of people from all walks of life and indeed all parts of the world, each with their own views and opinion of whisky. And I suppose this is part of the allure to me. There is always a sense of anticipation as I set up a tasting in a new venue or in front of a new crowd. I was told a long time ago to “never fear fear, because it’s the fear inside us that brings out the best” and this is certainly true. By thinking through every possible situation, reminding myself of the real detail of whisky production and all those geeky questions I have been asked over the years helps me focus and of course, the questions eventually are never that in depth.
This year already I have been working with Savoy hotel in London, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, Park Lane hotels, three new venues and the usual venues I frequent perhaps too often. And the one that sticks out for me is The Jolly Colliers in Coalville.
Now, I am sure the landlady (Fiona) won’t mind me saying that this is no Savoy or Park Lane establishment, lacking the grand foyer or gilded ceiling but what it lacks in appearance, it more than makes up for in welcome.
I was booked to run a tasting there after hosting one in Nottingham, which is not too far from Coalville. One of the attendees saw this as a great night out for his pub and put me in touch with Fiona. A few emails and Facebook messages later and a date was set, numbers confirmed and whisky arranged. It only took about an hour for me to drive to the Jolly Colliers, finding it nestled in the dark, in what seemed like a truck stop at the time and quite and industrial area. A flashing neon sign above the door telling the night that it was “open” seemed even more out of place than the venue itself. The pub has obviously stood for a lot longer that it’s surroundings and seemed swamped against its backdrop of steel sided warehouses and storage units. But the lights were on and the door open.
I spent my “apprentice” years in venues like this, simple decor, bright lights, good range of ale (and whisky!) and a warm welcome, which is exactly what I received as soon as I was through the door. Substance over style. Perfect. The room was filled up already and was quite an interesting mix and clearly some regular whisky drinkers (they already had one in hand), a few “I don’t touch the stuff” and everything in between.
Like any bartender or speaker in general, the biggest challenge is to quickly gain the audiences trust – your words fall on deaf ears until the listener makers up his or her mind if they want to believe you. This can take a while, especially in London where many people think they know best and almost ignore you, (I despise the rudeness of some) and it seems all too apparent where whisky is involved as this tends to bring out the “I have drunk whisky for more years than you have been alive” brigade. Talking over you with their own nuggets of wisdom or little whispers to the fellow next to them can be very off-putting. Well, it used to be, but the key is to talk with your mouth and listen with your ears, waiting to pick up on a line or comment that can be used with, not against, the individual to capture their attention. It’s a fine balance between using this info to shame them, and using it to bring them on board and illuminate their under-breath comment in such a way that you actually are inviting them to stand next to you on the floor and be a bigger part of the showcase.
Fortunately, the opposite happened at the Colliers. It was obviously a room of regulars, who may not have all know one another personally, but certainly felt comfortable in each others company enough to heckle me from the start! But in a good way and without malice.
It took me by surprise, but it was welcomed because instantly the banter began and the laughing started, and continued. The whisky flowed, the questions were great and there were numerous stops between drams for “comfort and nicotine breaks” as most had a pint at the same time. This session morphed into a true whisky tasting…a breakdown in style perhaps, and not what I am used to, but wonderful none the less. Relaxed, funny and engaged- and that was the crowd, not me!
Sadly, due to the fact that I had drive to the venue, I made a hasty exit and jumped back in my car before being tempted to join in with the growing offers of a dram or a pint at the bar. I wish I had… I could see that ending up in quite a fun night and the whisky was enjoyed. I have no doubt that some of the info went in one ear and out the other, but then I don’t think they came to learn, this crowd wanted a social event and they created exactly that. The Colliers certainly deserves its Jolly prefix.
Before I left, I spoke to a regular and the landlady, both of whom left me pondering some big questions. The first came from the regular, a shaved headed, heavy-set man in his late 20′s sporting a white track suit top and thick gold chains making him perhaps the kind of individual you wouldn’t instantly strike up a conversation at the bar with, but as we all know, “never judge a kindle by its protective cover”.
He was so intrigued by whisky, having never been to a tasting before, and the differences that can be found. You could clearly see he had been shown an entirely new world and he liked it. During the session, he actually came up with some really good questions and tasting notes showing that he clearly understood whisky even if he really didn’t know about it (and there’s a big difference).
One question he posed to me left me thinking.
He said “I drink Jack Daniel’s in town, and when I ask for whisky, that’s what they offer. So how do i get a better range in my local?”
We’ll, obviously there are a number of ways to approach this right? Is it the bars fault? The customer? The brands? Who makes the first move? Repeat custom brand calling will get the whisky range increased but that will only come through getting more customers to understand whisky (that’s my job). The bar, who probably thinks it does not have whisky drinkers amongst its clientele, and thinks its a waste of revenue to shelve more of a selection. The brands, who do try their best, probably don’t focus on the type of bars this customer would frequent- aiming at trend/city bars instead.
It’s a vicious circle really and one I expect every bar, brand or customer will have an opinion on. Just how do we make whisky more accessible? I know for a fact that the Jolly Colliers sells a better range of whisky now since the Dramatic Whisky sessions took place and I can site other “no-frills” off the radar venues which can say the same.
The second, and not so much a question, really stumped me. The Jolly Colliers is brewery owned and as such, Fiona, is a live in landlady. It’s quite typical with this type of venue really so no surprise there. What was a surprise is that the brewery have decided to evict Fiona as the pub is not making a great deal of revenue. The figures were divulged to me, but I am not about to discuss them here, but the amount the brewery asked on a daily basis was astronomical. Clearly this landmark had been viewed from behind a desk and someone in finance had earmarked it as a black-spot. In essence, this pub is on the way out and with it will not only go a fun and caring landlady but also the heritage of the place. The centre of the small community that frequents it and passing trade will have to look elsewhere, but where is there?. This venue is not somewhere that can suddenly turn into a wine bar or host a fab cocktail list to encourage a new, but no doubt transient, crowd. It’s not a trend or a destination bar, it’s a pub. Remember those? The type of place we all probably had our first sly underage pint in. Sitting in the corner, hoping that no one will tell your dad that they saw you. But in reality, your dad would welcome the news because this is a safe place and you would be kept in line by the regulars. Far better than a street corner and a carry-out (that’s a Scottish term for a bag of booze destined for the park on a Friday night).
It really saddened me to hear the news that the smile is to be wiped off the “Jolly” Colliers face once and for all. It’s unlikely another landlord/lady will make any better of this diamond in the rough. It’s not the fault of the staff or the punters. Just another statistic on a financiers sheet not quite making the grade and instead of maintaining the shine on this wee jewel, the brewery will cast it off like an unwanted trinket. I have worked as management for brewers before and so I speak from experience when I say they only care about the money. If you don’t quite make the grade, no matter how much you try with the limited resources they give you, its over.
I once ran a bar with a 500 cd collection in it, renowned in Glasgow as “The” place to be seen. Turned a mint. Brewery bought it for a ridiculous amount of money (I don’t blame the owner) after seeing a typical Friday night in this small basement location. When asking for petty cash from the new owners to replace the cd collection I was given the response of “buy two compilation hits albums and put them on repeat”. Needless to say the bar went from taking 25k a week to 8k and was sold on by the brewery shortly after for a loss. They just didn’t get it.
These pubs, along with the people that run them, the punters that frequent them and the occasional guest that has a warm welcome from them, will disappear. The building will be boarded up and in time be flattened to make way for a bit more of warehousing or another drive through.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not about to start a petition to save another pub, but in answer to the man in the track suit asked me earlier “How do we get to know about proper whisky?”
Well, you come to a place like the Jolly Colliers- but not for long.